Illenium enters next phase with ‘Nightlight,’ talks one year of ‘Ascend,’ selling out Madison Square Garden, and more [Interview]
With three masterful longform outings already to Illenium’s credit, Ashes, Awake, and the now year-old, Ascend, the Denver-based producer’s meteoric skyrocket from little-known remixer to one of melodic dubstep’s vanguards did not occur by chance. Succeeding an unmistakable campaign for the aforementioned third album to round out an unforgettable end to the decade, which included sold-out headlining appearances at both Madison Square Garden and Staples Center, the 29-year-old has now taken advantage of the newfound freedom provided by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying a temporary goodbye to Ascend and shifting his concentration solely on his next musical era.
After disclosing an official signing to the 12Tone Music roster in early August, Illenium’s new dawn is now ready for its first steps as he shares his first unaccompanied original since the release of his last LP. Tacking onto this year’s release roster of “Feel Something” with Excision and a four-pack of Ascend live edits, “Nightlight” arrives as a faultless transition period for Illenium, epitomizing each and every one of his one-of-a-kind sonic traits.
A wholehearted topline from Annika Wells that will inevitably be belted by crowds of thousands effortlessly coalesces with an acoustically-charged base from Illenium on the single. While “Nightlight” would have assuredly found itself right at home within any of his previous LPs, it nevertheless supplies a cordial introduction to what’s to come, drawing out a refreshing climate of Illenium’s persistently limitless melodic sound.
In celebration of the release of “Nightlight,” Illenium spoke with Dancing Astronaut about the single’s foundation, the one-year anniversary of Ascend, performing to a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden, and much more.
Earlier this summer, you shared another round of tour edits, this time for Ascend. I remember when we last spoke, it was just before the Awake edits were released, and you mentioned how difficult of a process it actually was to clear the song rights. Was that process any easier this time around, especially with it being officially released?
Illenium: “Way harder. I had to cut a few because for the intro, it’s like six songs mashed together in one. It’s a special time in quarantine, so I wanted to give something to my fans and everyone agreed to terms, like not typical songwriting terms, which was really cool of them. Once that panned out, it was better. I always wanted to release it officially, [but] if I have an edit with four of my songs, I have to get every single person involved in every song to sign off. It means the royalties for that one mashup are a percentage of what a normal song would be.”
“Nightlight” is now the first release by yourself since Ascend came out a year ago and is definitely your sound at its finest. How did that track originally come about and was there any specific inspiration behind it?
Illenium: “So Annika Wells wrote the topline and it’s one of my favorite progressions. When I started building it, it kind of turned into the more rocky Ascend thing because I just love that sound and I feel like there’s more to dive into with that world. The lead that happened just happened to sound like an Ashes-esque lead, which was actually really cool. It was like a total mixture of both. That’s kind of the direction I’m going in, where I’m picking my favorite sounds from over the past four or five years and trying to make the best songs out of those.”
Is it a different feeling putting out a song that no one has heard live yet, since you don’t really have any fan feedback?
Illenium: “Yeah it’s weird going on Reddit and not seeing any snippets or anything. People have no idea what to expect, which is cool. I think more people are going to jump on listening to it right when it comes out.”
Has being stuck in quarantine changed your production process at all? Were you already working on “Nightlight” before the pandemic started or was that created in the time since?
Illenium: “‘Nightlight’ was made during. Pretty much everything I have in the pipeline is all stuff I’ve been making since the closure of everything. I think it’s really given me the break I needed and has allowed me to be able to recharge. I loved Ascend and I loved making it, but I feel like a lot of the stuff I was making, I was making it just because I knew it would go off live. That’s definitely fun, but right now, I’m making stuff that I want to listen to and stuff that I want to give me an escape through the music.”
Your third album, Ascend, just officially celebrated its first birthday. What has that project meant to you as you look at the scope of your career from the remix era to Ashes to now?
Illenium: “It was one of those things that you never thought would happen. I kind of just kept focus and kept driving and driving and driving. Even when that hit, it only hit me a little bit. Now looking back, it’s like holy shit, that’s insane that the Ascend tour happened. I’m so grateful that it happened at that time and it didn’t get fucked up. It’s definitely a thing to look back on and it’s still like how the fuck did it happen. It’s pretty mind-blowing.”
Last September, you joined an exclusive group of legendary electronic acts to headline and perform at Madison Square Garden, which you also sold out. What was that milestone experience like?
Illenium: “It was fun. It was nerve racking as shit because we were only three days into the tour and there was stuff going wrong left and right. I felt like if I could make a statement or if I could show people the strength of the dance music community and my fans, that would show. People are together, singing, and having a moment. It’s freaking cool.
It’s definitely mind-blowing to think how far it’s come when thinking about Ashes to Ascend. It’s a night and day difference in the shows, in my career in general, and in the music. I think one thing that was hard about Ascend was writing it, and I only had a limited amount of time here and there to crank out a song. That kind of put pressure on me and I still enjoyed the songs I was making, but I didn’t feel the high that I get when I’m in a room producing music as much. It came here and there, but I had to go and I had to do shit. Now, I feel like I really get to soak it in and feel it more. I have no regrets by any means, it’s fucking sweet. My career is where I never imagined it would be, but I’m glad with where I’m at too with the label. I feel freedom to do whatever I want, which is great.”
Do you have any collaborations that are officially on the way? I know you had been talking about ones with Said the Sky, Nurko, and Dabin.
It’s been almost two years since the release of your “Without Me” remix for Halsey. Do you have any current plans for another or are you just focused on original music for the time being?
Illenium: “With remixing, I kind of just have to hear the right song that I just know what I can do with it. I’m so focused on original stuff that I’m not searching as much as I used to back in the day. I think a lot of the reason I did search back in the day was because I couldn’t really get vocalists and work with vocalists on singles on my own. It was kind of hard, and now I’m able to find really talented songwriters and vocalists. It’s a whole ‘nother thing and I can put my voice into it, which I really love. If I hear an amazing song that I just think, ‘this needs this,’ then yeah, I would.”
This interview has been edited for both readability and clarity purposes.
Featured image: Maddie Córdoba